Some thoughts, pre-trip

In about four days, I’ll be heading to London and Prague for a week. I’m putting the final touches on my packing, checking my to-do list and making sure I have everything printed out that we’ll need. I’m very excited to see my boyfriend again after almost a year apart.

I wanted to share a final list of what all we’ll be doing. I’m actually pretty amazed that we’ll be able to fit it all inside a week, and it’s a testament to our teamwork and planning abilities. So without further ado, here are the highlights of our upcoming trip:

  • The National Gallery in London
  • The British Museum
  • A proper curry dinner
  • BBC Proms concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma
  • The Spanish Synagogue and Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
  • Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral
  • Our Lady Victorious church
  • An evening Prague ghost tour
  • A visit to Petrin Hill and the Stefanik Observatory in Prague
  • Lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant
  • The Beer Museum
  • An alternative walking tour of Prague
  • A Prague cocktail bar specializing in Prohibition-era drinks
  • A breakout game in Prague
  • A boat tour on the Vltava River
  • SkyGarden in London
  • Borough Market in London
  • The Tate Modern
  • Dinner with one of my friends in London
  • “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre
  • A picnic in Hyde Park
  • Harrods
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum
  • Two “secret” places we’ve each picked out to surprise the other

It’s a lot, isn’t it? And yet somehow we’ll be doing it, and more. I can’t wait.

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Trip-planning as a couple

As September gets closer, I’m putting final touches on my planned holiday with my boyfriend. This isn’t our first vacation together, but it’s the first one that requires international travel for both of us, and the first one to require substantial planning and booking ahead of time. With our previous trip to Manchester and the Lake District, we showed up at hotels where we’d booked, ate where we wanted and went to whatever museums we wanted. It was generally unhurried and relaxed. This year, though, the planning is more intensive.

I booked my flight for September back in March, and at about that same time, booked tickets to see “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre in London. This was for a play six months away and seats were still mostly sold out or unavailable. This past weekend, I managed to secure tickets for a Yo-Yo Ma solo performance at Royal Albert Hall, part of the BBC Proms concert series. The tickets sold out the same day they became available and I was lucky to get them.

Still ahead for booking: our return flight to Prague, Gatwick Express return tickets, tickets to visit the Sky Garden in London, ghost tour tickets in Prague, the Prague Card combination museum/transit pass, seven of our eight nights in hotels, some restaurants (including the Michelin-starred Alcron in Prague) and Thorpe Park tickets. Some things we’re doing were my idea, some were his idea and some came from both of us. It’s compromise, and it’s wonderful.

Just thinking about the sheer amount of stuff we’re fitting into this week is taxing. But that also makes it unique and amazing, the second in what I hope will be an extensive series of holidays, both long and short, for us as partners.

I’ve heard before that if you and your partner can travel successfully together, you’ll be OK. While we didn’t travel too extensively last time, we were able to catch trains and find hotels smoothly. I’d say we passed the initial hurdle. We didn’t fight or get frustrated with each other. This coming trip will require a little more coordination and put us more to the test, but I can’t wait. I love talking about it with my boyfriend and I love the two of us working together to create an experience that’s ours.

In search of “home”

I do some of my best thinking on the Metro. There’s nothing to do, really, except think and go over things in my mind.

My little epiphany this morning was in my realization that, while I can safely say that I don’t feel much emotional attachment to where I grew up — without my friends and parents and other family there, I’d have no reason to go back — I also don’t have that many roots in D.C., despite living here for a year and a half. I think deep down, I see my time here as temporary and transient. Will it end up being so? Maybe. Maybe not. Plenty of people in D.C. planned to stay for a year or two, and lo, 30 years pass and they’re still here.

Then I thought about what makes a home. How do you decide to lay down roots? When should you decide? Should you fall in love with a place, and stay out of love for that place, or should you fall in love with a person, and lay roots with them wherever? I don’t think it’s too much to ask to love someone and stay with them in a place that you’d love even if you weren’t with them. I hope to be so fortunate.

I’m also not sure that time expended counts toward a feeling of home. I still think of England as “home” on some occasions, despite only living there for two years. On the one hand, almost two decades in the Midwest hadn’t done much to solidify nostalgia for that place. The jury’s still out on D.C., I have a certain fondness for it, but can’t help this nagging feeling that it too is just a pit stop on the road to … somewhere else.

Traveling is something I have to do, almost compulsively. Even my trips that get planned months in advance receive almost obsessive attention. Is my travel bug some subconscious method of “scouting” a possible home? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m destined to just be a wanderer, moving here and there whenever I manage to overcome inertia.

At the end of the day, I think a true home has to combine both people and location. It’s not enough to live somewhere you love if you have no one to share it with, and it’s not enough to be with someone you love if the location makes you miserable or unhappy.

Wish me luck eventually finding that happy balance.

Back to Blighty, for a little while

It’s no secret that I’ve put off going for my Ph.D. Mainly it’s an issue of finances and the fact that my job in D.C. is going well. But I still miss England fairly often, so I decided to head back to visit for a little more than a week in September. I’m flying to Manchester, not London, and seeing some parts of the country that I haven’t before, or haven’t seen in a long time: Manchester, Liverpool, the Lake District and that general area.

I plan to be joined in this adventure by my good friend Deborah, with whom I went to Uni. Kent and formed part of a formidable pub quiz team (Grandma’s Wisdom for life!). I also hope to meet my pen pal (which sounds archaic and quaint but is the best way to describe it), a fellow nerd (we bonded over “A Song of Ice and Fire” and it doesn’t get geekier than that) and software developer/physics enthusiast who lives near Liverpool. I’m hoping a beer or two can help us figure out if it’s worth traveling down the Kingsroad, so to speak.

I have mixed feelings going back, even though it’s just for a brief period. I was probably at my personal and emotional nadir when I left the last time, and I’ll be going back on a far, far higher note, with good friends and a great job and other prospects. I’m hoping that that change in perspective lets me see the country more pragmatically and maybe figure out if going back long-term is really something I still want to pursue. If nothing else, I’ll get to see some great people and have some new adventures.

Since my tax rebate is funding this little sojourn, I splurged for an exit row aisle seat on my flight over and back. Worth every penny. Or pence.

Richard III has one hell of a car park bill

As an insatiable student of history, I geeked out this morning when I saw that Richard III’s remains had been found in a car park (a parking lot) in Leicester. (As you might expect, the BBC has the best coverage of the goods.)

The skeleton had taken a fatal head wound, the burial site matched the alleged location of Richard III’s final resting place, the remains matched the time period and Richard’s age, and a mitochondrial DNA test matched known descendants of Richard. Most intriguing, to me, was the fact that the skeleton had a curved spine — scoliosis — that was the basis for calling Richard a “hunchback.”

Richard’s story — the brother of a king who became king himself under interesting circumstances, only to die in battle against Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field — holds political significance even now. Namely, the story shows that history is written by the victors — in this case, the Tudor dynasty, victorious in the final stand of the Wars of the Roses, painted Richard as a deformed, child-killing villain, with the help of one William Shakespeare. And above all, it shows that “might makes right.”

The discussions on the BBC story are fascinating to read. A few decry Richard as a murderer who should be left where he was found. Others say he was framed and that Henry Tudor was responsible for killing Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London. (While I think we’ll never know for certain, I tend to believe that Richard did it; come at me.) There are those who want him interred in York Minster or Westminster Abbey (right now a Leicester burial is planned). And there are those who insist that Edward IV was not a legitimately born son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville and that Richard III, his younger brother, was the legitimate king after all. Oh, and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) was a usurping jerk.

This last part is interesting for a few reasons. First, Edward IV overthrew Henry VI, the last Lancaster king, and thus could, in theory, have claimed the throne by right of conquest no matter who his real father was. Second, Richard’s claim was largely through being Edward’s brother, based on Edward’s success against Henry VI. Richard and Edward’s father had been a duke but not a king. So if Edward was illegitimate and not qualified to be king, Richard as his brother should not have had a claim either — it’s circular logic, saying that Richard was the rightful king and not Edward, when Richard’s immediate claim was derived from Edward’s military success. If Richard was the rightful king, it follows that Edward must have been, too; if Edward’s claim was bunk, his heirs’ claims must have been too, surely? While it’s true that both men had claims by being descended from Edward III, they were certainly not alone there; the primary argument for the York dynasty at that point was defeating the Lancasters.

And the same can be said for Henry Tudor. Rightful claim or not — Henry’s mother was descended from a legitimized branch of Edward III’s family through his son, John of Gaunt, and his father descended from a Welsh upstart who married Henry V’s widow, a French princess — Henry still defeated Richard and could claim the throne by right of combat.

That justification for rule just seemed lost on much of the BBC audience. Arguing about legitimacy and parentage and the church and rights, while forgetting that in those days, the throne belonged to whoever could keep it. Richard failed, Richard died and Richard lost. And he wasn’t the first one — Henry Tudor (technically on the Lancasters’ side, but who founded the Tudor dynasty) overthrew Richard, who helped overthrow Henry VI. Whose grandfather Henry IV overthrew his own first cousin, Richard II. And on and on back to William I. So who gets to decide who’s rightful? When does a usurper become legitimate, and vice versa? Ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different answers. So it goes.

Regardless of how misplaced I think some of the commenting on this story is, it’s nonetheless a huge development in understanding a critical moment in English history — considered the dividing line between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages by many — and I was thrilled that it happened. I also hope that more can be done to understand Richard and how he lived, and maybe even change popular opinion about his reign and personal character. There’s a lot to be learned here, and I for one am curious to see where this all goes.

Art in London

Sunday, after a relatively low-key weekend, I decided, kind of off the cuff, to go into London for the day. There was nothing I really went in for — other than some Christmas shopping — but I figured I’d wing it.

I had planned to shop a bit at the big Waterstones bookstore right off Trafalgar Square, but unfortunately, they didn’t open until noon. Having some time to kill, I wandered down the Strand. The skating rink at Somerset House was packed, so I ducked into the courtyard for a couple of photos. I noticed on the way out that the Courtauld Gallery inside the Somerset House complex was open. Intrigued, having never visited before, I went in to take a look. As a student, I got in free, which is always a bonus.

Paul Cézanne's "The Cardplayers"

Paul Cézanne's "The Cardplayers"

If you haven’t been able to tell before now, I’m something of an art enthusiast. I’ve never taken a formal art class — either history or practice — but I’ve been to several of the major galleries of Europe and developed a taste for viewing pieces. Italian Renaissance art and French Impressionism are my two favorite categories.

The Courtauld Gallery is comparatively small, but I was impressed with its pieces. The Gothic religious art, namely several triptychs and polyptychs, and its collection of Peter Paul Rubens paintings are excellent. The Impressionist collection, particularly a few Renoir works, was also awesome to see. A Botticelli painting depicting Christ being lowered from the crucifix featured a portrayal of Mary Magdalene I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a painting, with her hair loose around her in typical Botticelli waves.

The real experience at the gallery, though, was the fabulous short-term exhibit on Paul Cézanne’s “The Cardplayers.” Cézanne is one of those painters whose style is so defined, you can immediately identify his work. I’m a fan of his still-lifes in particular. “The Cardplayers” is a series of paintings depicting French rural peasants playing cards (obviously). The exhibit showed Cézanne’s process, including pencil “cartoons” (early sketches) of the figures and other portraits he had done of the subjects. At the time, his treatment of the peasant class was somewhat cutting-edge, especially given that he often depicted them in more genteel settings, such as his studio or a country house.

After I finished there, I walked (it was nice!) to the Tate Modern. I’m not normally enthusiastic about post-Impressionist work, but I had yet to see Salvadore Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” and the Andy Warhol exhibit. After a quick espresso in the cafe, I headed upstairs to view the Dali painting.

The painting has one of the most clever visual tricks I’ve seen. On the one hand, you can see the kneeled figure of Narcissus, who in Greek mythology fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and drowned. The gods turned him into the narcissus flower. On the other side, you see a hand gripping a cracked egg, from which emerges a narcissus flower. Though the two figures are different, they are, in terms of shape, mirrors of each other.

Salvadore Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus"

Salvadore Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus"

I next visited the Warhol exhibit, a room plastered with gauche cow-print wallpaper that Warhol concocted after a friend told him that “no one does pastoral work anymore.” A self-portrait is there, as well as a camouflage installation, a stark black and yellow painting of a dollar sign, and a visceral (tinted with red, like blood) painting of two guns, done after the artist was shot by an admirer.

I spent the rest of the day roaming the city, going across the Millennium Bridge, having lunch at Chipotle (where else), getting a gingerbread cupcake at the Hummingbird (of which I’m now the mayor on Foursquare), walking through St. James’s Park and through Westminster and Whitehall (luckily the student protests have died down), browsing books at Waterstones and going down to the Imperial War Museum to view its Holocaust and crimes against humanity exhibits, in preparation for my human rights class next term.

Another great day in the city.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I will continue with the second half of my Paris adventures tomorrow. For now, I’ll share news of my Thanksgiving in Canterbury.

My three friends and I decided a few weeks ago to celebrate Thanksgiving. Rather, I told them how awesome it’d be and they came around. My dear mum had sent me a turkey centerpiece and tablecloth of appropriate gaucheness earlier in the season, which I saved for the occasion.

Yesterday afternoon, my hardy friend Hannah and I took the bus to Sainsbury, the “nice” grocery store in town. I didn’t really make a list; I just tried to remember what all we usually ate. Hannah’s a vegetarian, so I brought her along so she could pick out her own meal.

For the grand total of £22, £5.50 a pop, we bought the following: turkey breasts for Rachel, Deborah and me; a pie for Hannah with pine nuts, spinach and feta; whole potatoes for mashing; butter and cream for the mash; fresh raw carrots for steaming; dinner rolls; cranberry sauce; cranberry-and-orange stuffing; turkey gravy and vegetable gravy; and a whole orange-and-raspberry cheesecake.

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After my class ended at 6, I went over to Rachel and Hannah’s kitchen and we got to work. While they peeled potatoes and carrots, I put the table together, took photos, prepped the stuffing and put the turkey and vegetable pie together. We baked each separately in the oven with stuffing. I also did the gravy. Mmm gravy. Ill-advisedly, we mashed the entire bag of potatoes and ended up with a sizable mound. Hannah steamed the carrots together with leftover green beans, and I baked the dinner rolls.

We each agreed that this was probably the best meal (“best” as in hardiest) since we’d arrived here. I said a (slightly awkward) grace beforehand, and we tucked in. Everything was really good; the turkey was even properly moist. We all ate way, way too much and had to sit to digest it all. Deb gamely did most of the washing while Rachel and Hannah dried and I cleaned the table off. After that we had cheesecake and some delicious sugar doughnuts that Deb had brought back from a day trip to Lille yesterday.

Everything worked out well, and I realized that this was the first Thanksgiving I’d spent where I was in charge of the most of the planning, coordination and cooking. And I didn’t screw it up!  I’m just glad I got to spend it with good friends who were happy to share our overeating tradition.

My mother has also informed me that several people read this blog but don’t comment. Please comment if you see something you like or have questions! I like feedback and I like knowing that someone is reading.